The Science of Well-Being During COVID-19

Contributing Author: John Hollway, Senior Fellow (Positive Psychology Center) & Associate Dean and Executive Director (Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice)

Photo credit: Aleksandar/Pexels

hen I was a very young kid, my Dad had a small book of Peanuts cartoons on his bedside table. It was one of those really small books you might pick up in a Hallmark store, and on the lime green cover was Linus, standing under a cloud that was pouring rain all over him with a broad smile on his face.

The book was titled “A Smile Makes A Lousy Umbrella.”

I remember that title whenever I think about the limits of what I might call the “well-being movement,” the idea that if we just try hard enough to be happy, everything will be fine. Sometimes, everything is just not fine. It would be a mistake to think that optimism, positive thinking, hope, generosity, etc. will prevent the rain from falling, or stop you from getting wet when it does. For that, you need an umbrella. Or a sunny day. And sometimes life doesn’t give us either of those.

So, a smile might be a lousy umbrella, and yeah, it’s been raining a lot lately. Does that mean we shouldn’t smile? Maybe the right question is whether someone who’s smiling while getting rained on is having an easier time of things than someone who isn’t.

That is the question that some of the leading scholars of positive psychology try to answer in a new paper, “Positive Psychology in a Pandemic: Buffering, Bolstering, and Building Mental Health.” The 11 authors are experts and researchers who have dedicated their careers to testing and measuring methods to promote mental health and providing actionable recommendations to help people and groups optimize their lives. Now they apply that experience to living in a global pandemic — or, as they put it, “the role that positive psychology can play when life does not go right — in fact, when life goes very wrong.”

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It’s important to start by understanding that positive and negative emotions don’t exist on a single, see-saw kind of structure. We can simultaneously feel happy and sad, and we can compartmentalize happiness in one area of our lives with struggle in others. To show that during COVID, consider this 2020 study of Italian hospital workers. Confronted with the initial waves of the pandemic, the workers’ emotional well-being and happiness definitely went down — but they found a deeper sense of meaning in their work, and were the recipients of frequent, heartfelt gratitude from the patients in their care, their families, and the community. Positive emotions and negative emotions shifted and co-existed — and as a result, their overall life satisfaction stayed the same.

There will always be good things and bad things in our lives. We can’t make ourselves happy all the time, and we shouldn’t try. Instead, positive psychology suggests that we look for positive emotions, practices or relationships to:

BUFFER against our challenges and diminish the impact of the struggle;

BOLSTER ourselves to withstand the negative impact of our situation; and

BUILD new capabilities and ways to cope with the challenges that are facing us.

How we do this will look different for each of us. Here are some options that science has shown to be helpful:

1. Remind yourself of your purpose. COVID has rattled a lot of us and made us question our assumptions about our place in the world. At the same time, it has created opportunities for us to re-evaluate our goals and see more clearly what we care about and who the people are that rely on us. While we may not all be front-line healthcare workers, we are providing help and assistance to our families, our friends, our communities, and ourselves. Being “other-focused” also reassures us of our own strength — sometimes strength we didn’t even know we had. So, consider your outward-facing purpose, and pursue it in these tough times.

2. Embrace daily coping strategies. The existence of stress in our lives is nothing new. What has changed is that the way we spend our days has taken a pretty dramatic hit, not only adding new stressors to our lives but interfering with our standard strategies for coping with that stress (raise your hand if you used to go to the gym, or get a massage to reduce your stress levels, for example). This requires us to seek out new coping strategies within our new day to day. Maybe the new training app on our laptop gives us bodyweight fitness exercises to reduce our stress, and now as spring approaches, we can get back outside for socially distanced walks with loved ones. Will these strategies make our lives universally fabulous? As some have pointed out recently, that’s a lot to ask of an afternoon walk. But will they reduce our stress levels and bring us into a stronger emotional place? Absolutely.

For ideas on strategies that might help, consider Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework for well-being. Look for activities that will enhance your Positive Emotions; your sense of Engagement with activities you can “lose yourself” in; your Relationships with family, friends, or colleagues; activities that contribute to your sense of Meaning, or that it Matters that you do; and activities that give you a sense of Achievement or Accomplishment. Maybe that’s a jigsaw puzzle from 9–9:30 every night, or a telephone call to your parents, or a virtual cocktail with a different old friend every other week.

3. Be on the lookout for High-Quality Connections. Organizational psychologist Jane Dutton studies small “micro-units” of human relationships that she calls High Quality Connections, or HQCs. These are moments where two people experience together a vitality or positive energy, a sense of togetherness, and a positive regard for each other. Sharing these moments with others — even if the other is a stranger — improves our cardiovascular activity, strengthens our immune system, and promotes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social interaction and trust. In short, when we have positive mutual interactions with others, we feel better, we are healthier and have more cognitive energy.

What’s more, they’re pretty easy to create. Dutton refers to HQCs as “micro-units” because they can be as simple as complimenting your Starbucks barista on a pin on their uniform or letting a team member know that you saw them exhibit composure on a tough zoom call. These small opportunities to let people know you have seen something you admire about them bolster the mental health of the recipient, and the positive reaction and shared admiration you are sure to get will promote positive energy in your life as well.

4. Practice gratitude. Gratitude has been called “the mother of all positive emotions” because it brings in happiness, love, positive social connections, generosity, and a sense of a universe larger than ourselves, all of which have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and promote feelings of happiness and hope. Gratitude reduces stress and increases life satisfaction — but most importantly, expressions of gratitude to others strengthen social relationships. (This is a slightly different relationship strategy than HQCs, which focus on respect and regard for others as opposed to appreciation and thanks).

The social distancing and separation from work and family caused by COVID-19 is one of its most dramatic negative impacts, so making it a priority to express gratitude for the good things that happen to us every day has a particular impact in these challenging times. Consider the Three Good Things Exercise — write down three good things that happened to you today and reflect on them for just a minute before going to sleep. Even little things (junior ate his whole dinner) remind us that all is not lost and we all have things to be grateful for. And studies show that people who do this every day for three weeks have materially improved outlooks on life. For an added relationship benefit, share your three good things with someone, and hear theirs.

5. Consider how to use your character strengths more frequently. Character strengths are desirable features of our personality that we use when we are being our authentic selves. Psychologist Ryan Niemec and his colleagues at the VIA (Values in Action) Institute on Character have developed a survey to help you see which strengths you rely on regularly, and which you might want to consider using more often. Try taking their free survey with family or friends and talking about the results. Talking about your friends’ strengths, and hearing them discuss yours, is at once a learning exercise and an expression of love and admiration for one another — and it provides a shared language of support for the tools we all bring to this crisis as part of our authentic selves.

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Finally, recognize that even if you’re doing all of these things, there will be moments when it feels bumpy and rough, and moments where we don’t act in ways we want to. I love my kids, but sometimes I lose my temper in ways that I regret. And no matter how many times I remind myself to work out, sometimes I need a day off, and sometimes I just have a lousy workout day. In those times, it’s important to remember self-compassion. Psychologist Kristen Neff, an expert on self-compassion, suggests treating yourself with the same kindness and care you would treat a good friend going through struggles. She describes it as “the golden rule in reverse: do unto yourself as you would do unto others.” Think about how you respond when a friend calls with a problem, and how you respond to yourself in the same situation. If you’re like most of us, you are far harsher and less forgiving of yourself than you are of your good friend. During difficult times, that takes away a necessary area of emotional safety.

How do we do this? The Best Friend exercise. When you’re upset about a perceived failure or imperfection in your actions, ask yourself what your best friend — someone who cares about you and wants you to succeed — would say to you. He or she would acknowledge your emotions, without trying to get rid of them. He or she might even acknowledge your imperfections in the moment. But your friend would also tell you that nothing is easy right now and acknowledge the efforts you are putting forth to do your best. That compassion your friend has for you is real, and important as a part of your response to your environment. So, accept it. Apply the Golden Rule in reverse and practice it for yourself.

So yeah — a smile makes a lousy umbrella. But the sun will come back out eventually, and in the meantime, things that make us smile while it’s raining help us get through the storm more smoothly. We can’t avoid the struggles of life, but we can build resources that will help us adapt and adjust. And by picking and choosing the strategies that bolster, buffer, and build our emotional reservoirs, we can help each other make it through times of great difficulty.

Pictured: John Hollway

John Hollway is Senior Fellow at the Positive Psychology Center and Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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